Heb 10:19- 36; Acts 11: 19- 30 Matthew 13: 18-23
Stephen – the first Christian martyr – is killed (Acts 7:54-60) .Stoned to death. And the young man called Saul (not yet called Paul) is there approving of his murder. (v 60).
And persecution follows on a wider scale (Acts 8:1-3) We pick this up in Luke’s account in Acts 11:
- Act 11:19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews.
- Act 11:20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.
Antioch is the place where the disciples are first called Christians (Acts 11:26) It’s where the good news is shared with Greeks.
And the news is really great. People come to faith – non-Jews. Listen again:
- Act 11:21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
- Act 11:22 News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.
- Act 11:23 When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.
- Act 11:24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord
Who do they send? Barnabus – the son of encouragement. What a good person to have doing a Presbytery visit. We find out more about Barnabus – key things that are a lesson for us.
Remember a couple of weeks ago when we talked about Barnabus selling his field and bringing the money to the apostles to help those in need in the church? The reference was Acts 4:36-37, and I quoted a preacher and commentator Lloyd Ogilvie who said this:
In two brief verses we are introduced to one of the most admirable personalities of the New Testament. If all we had to enable us to know this man’s character were these two verses, we’d still have enough to stand in admiration and then desire to be like him.
Well I promised more about Barnabus – today’s the day:-)
Barnabus is thrilled with what he sees in Antioch. What does he do? He fetches Saul (whom we know as Paul) from Tarsus.
What you may know is that this son of encouragement had encountered Saul earlier.
After Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he shows up in the Christian community. (Acts 9)
You can imagine their suspicions of him – Saul persecuted them and is now a Christian preacher. Here’s the story from Acts 9:20 when Paul arrives in Damascus and after Ananias prays for him and the scales fall off his eyes (he was temporarily blinded on the road) and he is baptised:
- Act 9:20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.
- Act 9:21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?”
- Act 9:22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.
The story is hectic. Some Jews plot to kill him. But he is smuggled out of the city in a basket through an opening in the wall (Acts 9:25). You can see the early Ian Fleming novels beginning here (the author of James Bond!).
He goes to Jerusalem. There too the Christians are less than thrilled to have him around. (Trust issues don’t you think? You get this in all organisations and in families.)
Guess who shows up and rescues his reputation – saving the day for the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom principles of truth and grace? Barnabus of course. We read in Acts 9:27 and 28:
- Act 9:27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.
- Act 9:28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.
Barnabus the encourager – filled with the spirit of truth – stands for truth – advocating for Saul (or Paul as he becomes known).
It doesn’t last long though. We read in Acts 9:29 – He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. So they get him out of there and off to Tarsus his home town.
So here it is – in overview. Barnabus, the son of encouragement:
- Barnabus the one who listens to the Holy Spirit and liquidates an asset to help the church – so that there are no needy people among them.
- Barnabus who advocates for Paul the converted persecutor.
- Barnabus who is sent to Antioch to check out this new multicultural church – and who fetches Saul from Tarsus to come and teach the new church – because he knows Saul has more to offer as a teacher.
What an encouraging man!
So when there is a famine as we read in the last part of our reading from Acts 11 – who do they get to help?
- Act 11:27 During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch.
- Act 11:28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.)
- Act 11:29 The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea.
- Act 11:30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
Here’s the key verse: Act 11:29 The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea.
And Barnabus and Saul take the gifts to the elders of the church in Judea.
The modern Barnabus Fund encourages the church throughout the world, especially those who are persecuted. If figures that when the church is persecuted physical needs are part of the equation. Our gifts – according to our abilities – with our prayers – will help our brothers wherever the need is.
Persecution is not an exception or a modern scourge alone. It’s been there since the beginning. Did you pick up the links in the readings?
The Gospel reading speaks volumes. We’re all at risk of falling away.
- Mat 13:18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means:
- Mat 13:19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path.
- Mat 13:20 The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.
- Mat 13:21 But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.
- Mat 13:22 The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.
- Mat 13:23 But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
Are you a field – or ground or soil that is rocky, or beset with thorns? It’s about the word (v 21).
If the word of God is not planted and rooted well in you and me, we too could fall away when we face trouble or persecution, says Jesus. (Verse 21).
And of course the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. (Verse 22).
Choke what? The life of the word of God which is planted in our lives.
The parable of the sower is actually the parable of the soils. It’s about us!
How much more should we not pray for those whose lives are threatened because they are Christians and help them according to our ability!
We need to be encouragers!
- Generous here at BBP so that no one in our midst is in need.
- Truthful – sticking up for others who are maligned because of their reputation like Saul of Tarsus.
- Willing to see the good in every new situation like Barnabus visiting the church in Antioch.
- Honest – when we need help and invite others to support us in our work because of their gifts that are stronger than ours – like Barnabus who fetched Saul to help the church.
- And willing to go the extra mile – like Barnabus and Saul – to take our gifts to those in need like the Christians who were suffering because of the famine.
- And of course to give according to our ability as they all did for Christians in need. Paul of course emphasises this in his letter to the Galatians in chapter 6: Gal 6:9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Gal 6:10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Our other reading today from Hebrews 10 is one of the most powerful and inspiring passages of Scripture. And when it comes to encouraging one another there’s not much that beats Hebrews 10:23-26:
- Exhortations: Heb 10:23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
- Heb 10:24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.
- Heb 10:25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
These are the great ‘Let us…” and “Let us not…” lines – about holding on to the hope we profess – about spurring one other on towards love and good deeds – and especially the one trap that we fall into when things are hard – we stop meeting together.
Story – 19th century Baptist — Spurgeon once visited a man who had stopped coming to worship. He tried to explain the need to hang in there to the man, but words didn’t work. So he said: “it’s like this”. He took a red-hot coal from the fire and placed it on the side of the hearth. It grew cold and black. Then he took the tongs and placed the piece of coal back in the fire – and it grew hot and glowed red again.
We need to encourage each other in all these things!
And let’s face it – our reasons for giving up are often not really as bad as having a gun at our heads with our lives threatened if we are Christ’s followers. Or being buried up to our heads and then stoned to death like a Pastor’s daughter Monica we read about in the Barnabus Fund magazine.
Listen again to the last lines of the reading from Hebrews 10:
- Heb 10:32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering.
- Heb 10:33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated.
- Heb 10:34 You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
- Heb 10:35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
- Heb 10:36 You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.
Let’s help the persecuted Church persevere. And let’s not give up on our journey either.
Readings: Acts 22:1-22; Galatians 1: 11-24
Persecution in the early church was particularly bad during the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian towards the end of the 3rd Century AD. Not all Christians were courageous enough to face torture or death. There were those who renounced their faith and made offerings to Roman state gods or the Roman Emperor, and often burned their Christian texts.
Those who refused to submit to the Roman Empire and were found with Christian texts were often killed. This meant that the clergy were very vulnerable because they were most likely to have the Bible in some form or another. Many of those who renounced their faith and burned their books were clergy, although there were also lay people.
Later on when the church was restored (in the early 4th C) and persecution died down – it created an issue. Diocletian’s successor Constantine declared tolerance of Christianity in 313 AD (The Edict of Milan).
So what do you think happened? Those who had denounced their Christian faith carried on as priests. One of them was nominated as a bishop. People were less than thrilled about that, and a split, a schism, took place. The church was divided for a long time – hundreds of years – on this issue, and eventually other issues too.
The movement to exclude Christians who had denied their faith, particularly in North Africa, was led by the Donatists. They were one of the earlier charismatic groups – one of the interesting things they did was in confession – the Catholics heard confessions privately. The Donatists heard confession publically in front of the whole congregations. Sundays must have been interesting! (You can read about the Donatist controversy if you are interested in this period of church history.)
HOW WOULD YOU RESPOND?
How people respond to persecution or other threats such as invading conquering armies is always a challenge. What happens afterwards is the key issue. It’s no different from post-war conflicts in Europe – those who collaborated with the Nazis were not regarded as traitors.
Who knows what you and I would if our lives were on the line. Would you own Christ with a gun pointing at you?
So think about Paul then.
This time it’s not about accepting someone back into the fold who was persecuted and renounced their faith. Paul was the primary persecutor of Christians. He was the one hunting Christians down!
You can imagine how tough that was for Christians to swallow. This very committed Jewish, Pharisaical, scholarly and ruthless man, this zealous oppressor who travelled around looking for Christians to lock up, starts showing up at church, so to speak. Walking into Christian meetings. Actually on his mission trips he went around preaching in Synagogues, or in homes or at river sides – wherever he could.
It has been suggested that his role model could well have been the prophet Elijah – Saul the Pharisee would have been determined to keep Israel from idolatry. Like Elijah and the prophets of Baal!
Tom Wright says this about him: He saw himself, it seems, as a latter-day Elijah, cleansing Israel of the horrible nonsense about Jesus of Nazareth, who couldn’t have been the Messiah because he was crucified, and who certainly couldn’t be worshipped because in any case the Messiah wouldn’t be divine.
GRACE – BRILLIANT GRACE
If there is ever an example of grace, it is the conversion of Saul who becomes the Apostle Paul.
And so the text: In his defense of the Gospel, he writes this to the Galatian churches in chapter one, verse thirteen: Gal 1:13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. Gal 1:14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. Gal 1:15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, Gal 1:16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; Gal 1:17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
What a remarkable change in this man.
His testimony is very much like that of some of the prophets. Especially verse 15: But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace…
Listen to Isaiah on this sense of being chosen by God: Isa 49:1 Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. Isa 49:2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.
And also Jeremiah: Jer 1:4 The word of the LORD came to me, saying, Jer 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
And so back to Galatians 1 – we read from verse 15 again: Gal 1:15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, Gal 1:16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; Gal 1:17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
God revealed his Son to Paul – and everything changed. It’s the trip to Arabia that intrigues me. These are the hidden years in Paul’s life.
And there is this angle – Mnt Sinai (also know as Mnt Horeb) was in Arabia. Moses encountered God there. Elijah encountered God there – especially when he was fleeing from Jezebel. There’s that brilliant passage there which has made its way into hymns and songs:
1Ki 19:11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 1Ki 19:12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 1Ki 19:13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1Ki 19:14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 1Ki 19:15 The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.
There’s this fascinating parallel between Elijah and Paul – going to the mountain of God – and being sent off to Damascus.
They each had their own issues.
Can you imagine what was going on in Paul’s head? Tom Wright also says this:
But then – and here he slips into talking about himself as an Old Testament prophet – Paul was stopped in his tracks, just as Elijah had been. Elijah, dejected and depressed, went off to Mount Sinai to meet his God afresh, to learn about the still small voice as well as the earthquake, wind and fire. Saul of Tarsus went off, probably to Sinai (he says ‘Arabia’, which is where Sinai was), most likely for a similar private wrestling with the God whom he worshipped. This God, to Saul’s horror and amazement, had now revealed his son, and had done so in order that he, Saul, an ultra-orthodox Jew, might tell the pagan nations that Israel’s God loved them just as much as he loved Israel. (Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 9). SPCK. Kindle Edition.)
GRACE – ABUNDANT GRACE, UNLIMITED PATIENCE
We were praying this week about prisoners. How ironic that we so often want people locked up for the longest time possible. You hear it on TV so often – when people are sentenced for their crimes.
Yet we have this murderer who writes so much of our New Testament.
It is Paul who says this of himself: 1Ti 1:15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 1Ti 1:16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.
I reckon that Paul wrestled about this grace in those three years in Arabia.
Tom Wright again says this: But it is a central strand of most Christian living that everybody needs, from time to time, to wrestle privately with God and his will. It is necessary, too, that Christian leaders should be seen to be telling their own story truly.
…everybody needs, from time to time, to wrestle privately with God and his will.
We all do. We need time with God – especially alone – where we seriously reflect on his grace in our lives too. And what he may be saying to us.
In Paul’s case it seems that the Gospel was revealed to Paul directly from Jesus – as we saw last week.
Who knows what He will say to us if we take the time to wrestle with his will. Or just to be in His presence. It’s part of the shift that we talked about last week as we looked at Galatians 1:3-4 – Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.
Paul understood the shift he had to make. His zeal was shifted to his new task to share the gospel with non-Jews – with gentiles like us. Galatians 1:23-4 again: They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.
As do we!
Closer to our time Amazing Grace worked in the writer of the hymn – the slave trader, John Newton. Let’s see an extract about him and his conversion. In the movie William Wilberforce visits his old preacher Newton more than once.
(Video “Amazing Grace” – the wrestling of John Newton.)
Note: I am indebted to Tom Wright again.
Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 8-9). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
https://www.udemy.com/courses/ Here I have been influenced by Wright’s lectures “Paul and his letter to the Galatians”. This is from the course NTWRIGHT ON LINE through the Wisconsin Centre for Christian studies.